For Turkey's Kurds, a long history of grief

April 04, 1999|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS -- The cause of the Kurdish people is not one the Western powers want to hear about, when they have Kosovo on their minds.

They might wish to say to the Kurds what Stalin said to another small nation, Finland. In 1938, when world war was looming and Russia wanted territorial concessions, Stalin said, "I am not responsible for geography."

The Kurdish people have the geographical misfortune to live at a point where Arab, Turkish, and Persian (Iranian) civilizations intersect. But they are not numerous enough, or sufficiently united to impose themselves and claim and defend a Kurdish state.

Accommodation

Being where they are, they have little choice but to accommodate their neighbors. But the governments of the states in which they live have not been very accommodating to them. The result has been a history of griefs.

Yet what is their alternative? This question is again on the table, since the Turkish government is putting on trial Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the PKK, or Kurdish Workers Party. The PKK mobilizes that fraction of the Kurdish community that supports insurrection and terrorism to gain national autonomy for the Kurds.

Turkey offers the Kurds full citizenship -- but as Turks, and many Kurds have accepted political assimilation. They have been members of parliament. There have been Kurdish prime ministers. But Turkey refuses to concede to the Kurds a separate status.

The Ottoman Turks ruled their huge empire with scores, if not hundreds, of distinct national, ethnic and religious communities. Its rule was often arbitrary and despotic, but it institutionalized tolerance. Careers were open to talent. The empire demanded submission and taxes, but not social conformity or religious conversion.

That tolerance was a crucial factor in the empire's destruction. Russia and the other European great powers began to take it apart, sponsoring rebellions and defections.

Serbia, Greece, Egypt, Bosnia, Bulgaria, what now is Romania -- all acquired independence or semi-independence with foreign help. The Arabs were liberated by Turkey's defeat in World War I.

The most important and dynamic new nation that came out of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire was modern Turkey itself. Its charismatic leader, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and his associates learned the lesson from the Ottoman collapse that tolerance and diversity can be exploited by national enemies to undermine the unity and power of the nation.

They created a secular state of many nationalities, but only one, undifferentiated citizenship.

They modeled their state on Prussian-led Germany, which had been their ally in World War I, and on the French example of a centralized secular state that assimilates its immigrants and minorities. They have to adopt the national language and culture, which makes them free and equal citizens.

(It is the model of the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when immigrants were "Americanized" by social pressure, language and the public school.)

To the founders of modern Turkey, separatism meant weakness and the threat of humiliation the Ottomans had suffered.

In 1919, when the World War I allies proposed an independent Kurdistan in the peace Treaty of Sevres, Ataturk saw another European attempt to partition his nation.

By 1923, the Western allies had thought again, and the final peace settlement made no mention of Kurdistan. To the Kurds, it was one more betrayal.

Over the years, the Turks have seen their national rivals -- Greece, Iran, modern Armenia, Syria -- play the Kurdish card against them, inciting or sponsoring Kurdish rebellion. Today they are nervous about U.S. sponsorship of an autonomous Kurdish zone inside Iraq. They don't like the United States conducting an undeclared war against Iraq from their territory.

They are also bitter that the European Union, which once invited them to prepare to join the E.U., has indefinitely put off that application -- some official Germans remarking that a nation of Muslims has no place in Europe.

(Ottoman Turkey, a Muslim power, ruled southeastern Europe from the 14th to 20th centuries, longer than there has been a Germany).

Democratic space

As Semih Vaner of the Center for International Studies and Research in Paris recently wrote, despite its failures and uncertain human rights performance, the Turkish republic's 75 years have been a widely underestimated accomplishment. "An undeniably democratic space has been created, in a part of the world where democracy has not otherwise prospered.

"Including the final years of Ottoman constitutional monarchy, there has been more than a century of democratic experience, despite interruptions by an army which resists subordination to civil power but nonetheless is not an army of military coups and pronunciamentos. Regular elections have taken place since 1946. The party system works and is generally free." The record is not a negligible one.

The tension between Turks and Kurds is one of those terrible problems that history poses without providing a solution -- other than tolerance, which generally is in short supply.

William Pfaff writes a syndicated column.

Pub Date: 4/08/99

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